10 Fascinating Knoxvillians of 2011

Here are the most interesting figures we wrote about in the past year

Daniel T. Brown

It's a weird position, that of the interim mayor. One the one hand, you really are the mayor. You are the figurehead in charge of the city of Knoxville, and you are the public face that will be immediately associated with any unpopular or controversial action taken by its government. Even an interim mayor has unpleasant tasks, like issuing public condolences after tragedies like the death of Knoxville Zoo elephant keeper Stephanie James.

But on the other hand, you're only the mayor for a matter of months. Oh, and during that time? Half a dozen people will be loudly campaigning to replace you. Yes, you have the power, but you don't really get much of the glory.

So why did 6th District Councilman Daniel T. Brown decide he wanted the job?

"It was just an opportunity I didn't want to pass up. Those kind of opportunities don't present themselves very often," Brown says, four days after he's been sworn into office as Knoxville's new mayor (and just a little over a year after he was sworn into office on City Council).

The opportunity to make history? For, yes, even interim mayors can find their place in the history books—Brown is the first black mayor of Knoxville. A fact that might make a former history major at Tennessee State University doubly proud. But when he's asked about it, Brown sighs.

"You know, every single interview I've done, I've gotten asked that question," he says. When pressed, Brown finally admits that he thinks the city's first black mayor is something that's "really overdue."

All of which is to say, Daniel Brown appreciates the fact that in his 65 years on Earth he's gone from a segregated Austin High School and an all-white Knoxville city government to today, but that's really not why he wanted to serve the remainder of now-Gov. Bill Haslam's term. Really, you get the feeling it's more like Brown felt it was his duty to volunteer his name.

—Cari Wade Gervin, "Duty Calls," Jan. 20, 2011

Dr. Joe DiPietro

Bruce Pearl and Derek Dooley think they have it tough. Consider Dr. Joe DiPietro.

Once he wanted to be a vet and spend his time taking care of cows and horses. Now he has to be president of the University of Tennessee.

Sounds pretty swank, right? You're head of a state university system, you get $420,000 a year plus a $20,000 housing allowance, skyboxes, a life of schmoozing and nobbing with hobs. But did we mention that you're still digging out from the worst recession in 80 years, that the state doesn't like to spend money, that you're probably going to have to raise tuition, and that you're going to have to fight for attention with a whole other state university system that has the advantage of a headquarters in Nashville? Or that the popular governor who just left office saddled you with a mandate to make UT-Knoxville a top-ranked school and passed a tough new law tying university funding to graduation rates and other uncomfortably measurable things? And that, oh yes, the last three guys who took this job all ended up being pretty much run out of town for assorted personal and professional indiscretions? Oh, and also, by the way, that you don't even get to run the football program anymore?

Hey, congratulations!

Fortunately, in some ways, the bar has been set pretty low for the 59-year-old DiPietro, a literally egg-headed Midwesterner with a mild demeanor and an unpretentious manner. If he manages merely to not embarrass himself or the university, he will by default be the most successful UT president of the 21st century. But doing more than that, pushing the awkwardly configured UT system toward higher standards and greater prominence, will require a combination of administrative discipline, diplomatic skill, and public relations campaigning. The son of academics who grew up with a blackboard in his living room will have to make the case for education to a general public that sometimes seems ambivalent about the whole idea.

"I plan to be a champion for education," says DiPietro. "And I think the business community in Tennessee has smelled the coffee and realized it, too. There is a coalition of businesspeople that are saying, it's important that we have more Tennesseans gain college educations or technical degrees so we have a workforce to employ in our businesses, so we can move this state ahead."

—Jesse Fox Mayshark, "Volunteer Work," Jan. 20, 2011

Jayne McGowan

Jayne McGowan remembers it all: the good, the bad, and the awful. She was 49, divorced almost 10 years, when she met a new boyfriend, a fellow tenant at her apartment. "He was charming, romantic, left notes in my mailbox, ‘Come hither, I have surprises for you!'" she says, with just the slightest sardonic quirk in her voice.

Her eyes still light up a little when she talks about the movies, hours and hours of movies, they watched together. "It was a year of bliss."

Then she moved in with him, into a rural cabin he acquired through relatives; he was the sole owner. And everything changed.

He quit his job and expected her to pay all the bills. They both had cars, but she was expected to drive him everywhere, including places where he could get hooked up with the pain pills he was addicted to. The verbal abuse began, then the physical. It went on like that for four months; screaming, threats, shoves, disappearances, and money troubles.

Then the really bad day, three years ago. She recites the progression of events as if they happened to someone else. It started on a Saturday in March. His mom had given him some money to pay her back for the groceries she'd bought. They argued because he didn't want to give it to her, even though she needed money for gas to go to work at Food City the following week.

While she was napping, he took her car and didn't come home. She was worried—about him, and about the car. When he did get home, they began to argue again. "He called me vile names. When I tried to defend myself, the punching started."

He beat her from room to room in the three-room cabin, then outside, then back into the house again. "No matter which room I struggled into, it was the wrong room." ....

Today, McGowan shares an apartment downtown, and she keeps her eyes peeled for women in abusive relationships. "I keep cards handy that have phone numbers, like for the Family Justice Center, and when I hear girls talking I have them ready," she says.

She still attends support-group meetings at the Y. "I owe them, even though they say I don't. I got off pretty easy, some of these girls are really hurt bad. There are girls in there so close to the edge I was on. It's very, very hard, I know that feeling, ‘It'd be much easier if I left this Earth and left this all behind.'"

—Rose Kennedy, "A Survivor's Story," Feb. 24, 2011

Pamela Schoenewaldt

Pamela Schoenewaldt is not Italian. Her ancestors were not Italian. She is petite. Tiny. Her feet look as if they might have been prized in ancient China.

Her large blue eyes are framed with stylish glasses, the edges of which her blonde shag haircut tumbles around. Even if her last name wasn't Schoenewaldt, you might guess that she comes from German stock.

Schoenewaldt also has that casually continental look about her, that insouciant stylishness that most Americans can only obtain after a long time living in Europe. She wears sleek pants and chunky jewelry and hopelessly chic oversized sweaters.

She speaks Italian fluently, rapidly, clearly in love with her second country, the one she adopted in 1990 when she left San Francisco and the dregs of a bitter first marriage to go to Naples to follow the handsome Italian physicist she met while hiking.

She's now married to that physicist, Maurizio Conti. And after 10 years in Italy, she followed him to Knoxville, which was its own sort of foreign country for a woman from New Jersey who had lived in Philadelphia and New York and San Francisco and Naples.

Schoenewaldt says she likes Knoxville, Appalachia, the South more than she ever would have imagined. But, yet, she dreams of Italy, the setting of her first novel, When We Were Strangers.

"It's easier for me to write about a place when I'm not there, where it's the last place I lived," she says.

—Cari Wade Gervin, "25 Ways of Looking at Pamela Schoenewaldt: Or, Getting to know the author of When We Were Strangers," March 17, 2011

Gary Cantrell

It's just a few minutes before midnight on April 1, and Gary Cantrell, the founder and organizer of the 100-mile Barkley Marathons—one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world—is preparing to give his runners a big surprise. Sitting beneath lantern light at a picnic table in Frozen Head State Park, about 50 miles northwest of Knoxville, near Wartburg, Tenn., Cantrell is surrounded by maps, entry forms, camp food, soda cans, and beer bottles. The night is cold and getting colder, and storms are headed toward the park. He looks very pleased with himself, which isn't unusual at this time of year; since 1986, Cantrell has staged this grueling, sometimes terrifying endurance event crowded by its own odd and colorful underground culture, and he seems to take special delight in frustrating the ambitions of runners who come to his race.

Cantrell, a stout and mischievous man who resembles Teddy Roosevelt and appears to be in his 50s (he won't reveal his exact age), wears a long leather duster and a headlamp over a bright orange knit cap. He is holding a brand-new digital watch, which is counting up to 12:07 a.m. When the alarm beeps, he picks up a conch shell from the table and walks purposefully out from under the tent for the weekend's big surprise. He raises the shell and blows a short, sharp blast to announce that the race will start in exactly one hour. Race tradition dictates that Cantrell can blow the shell any time between midnight and noon, but it has never been this early. ...

"We used to get a lot of the best 100-mile runners, and they all did spectacularly badly," Cantrell says.

—Matthew Everett, "The Race That Eats Its Young," April 14, 2011

Marie Wilson

Marie Wilson lives alone in a small apartment in a quiet cul-de-sac in Powell. Some days are better than others, but she gets around pretty well for a lady going on 86. She spends some mornings out sunning herself on her concrete stoop. If you sit down and talk with her for a while, she's likely to stand up more often than you do. You might gather she still has a restless streak.

She doesn't think of herself as presentable these days. She wears clashing colors just because she can. She'll pour you a cup of coffee and make you a sandwich, but she prefers not to be photographed because she's lost most of her hair. Still, some women half a century younger might envy her luminescent blue eyes. They might also envy her memories of certain old pals like Elvis Presley and Hank Williams. Her photo albums are like none others in the world.

Her home decor features a few artifacts that might bewilder a curious burglar. A private detective's badge, for example. She was once a shamus. On her wall is a plaque that says, "To Miss Wilson, World's Greatest Bus Driver."

There's her security clearance to work for the Atomic Energy Commission. "I worked on the atom bomb," she says in the same tone you might expect a lady to say she'd strung a mess of beans. That was after she did some welding for Navy battleships.

There's a twinkle in her eye, and you might think she's an old lady pulling your leg. Nobody's done all the things she says she has. "I wouldn't believe it, myself," she says. But her apartment is a museum of evidence. The most startling bit of it, hanging on her wall near her efficiency kitchen, not far from the Greatest Bus Driver plaque, is a gold record.

It's for a song called "Anymore." Marie's collaborator Roy Drusky released it, but pop singer Teresa Brewer made it a top 40 hit in 1960, selling more than one million copies. "There must be someone else you're longing for," it went. "And I don't believe you love me anymore."

For about 30 years, Marie Wilson was a successful country-music songwriter in Nashville, one of the first female songwriters ever to make a go of it in Music City. She had several songs on the charts, recorded by Brenda Lee and Willie Nelson and especially her close friend Skeeter Davis, who had successes with several of Marie's songs, including "Set Him Free."

Until 1988, Wilson lived in a big house on the Cumberland River, where she had a guitar-shaped desk, and entertained close friends like Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton. But she came home to Knoxville in 1988 on what she believed would be a brief family errand, and after that, nothing was ever the same.

"It all sounds like a horse tale to me," she says. "I'll swan, if I didn't have the clippings to prove it—"

—Jack Neely, "Like a Country Song," Aug. 4, 2011

Derek Dooley

Derek Dooley's office looks more Hollywood than Tennessee. Everything is black and glass and metal and leather, except for the giant orange "T" that dominates the front of his massive desk. It feels like a set, which in some ways it is.

Dooley seems mildly embarrassed when I ask about the desk—"It's Coach Fulmer's desk," he says, explaining that the décor is designed in order to impress a 17-year-old recruit, not his coaching colleagues. Although he gushes about the luxurious surroundings—"So much space! I couldn't believe it when I first saw it"—the furnishings certainly don't seem to fit the 43-year-old Dooley's style.

Much has been made of Dooley's lineage—he's the son of legendary University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley—but he seems to have inherited his mother Barbara's impeccable sartorial taste. (That, and the always perfectly coiffed hair, which Sports Illustrated's Holly Anderson has called "flawless and above reproach at all times.") He's wearing crisp, plain-front khaki pants that don't seem to crease as he sinks down into one of the low black leather sofas, topped with an orange-and-white striped polo with a "T" embroidered on the chest and an Adidas logo embroidered on the sleeve. His black belt is simple, but the quality of the leather quietly murmurs its expense, as do the pale slip-on loafers Dooley is wearing without socks.

It's an understated, quiet look. After all, everyone knows exactly how much money Dooley makes: $1.8 million last year, $1.9 million this year. He doesn't need to flaunt it.

Still, Dooley's salary is chump change compared to the $6 million his former boss Nick Saban makes at Alabama. Dooley was an assistant coach under Saban at LSU from 2000 to 2005 and followed him to the NFL during Saban's ill-fated two-year tenure at the Miami Dolphins. Saban has a reputation of being a strict disciplinarian, the rules as inflexible as his hair. As the bar fights and arrests of the summer of 2010 have given way to a relatively quiet summer this year, I wondered if Dooley is taking a Sabanesque approach.

"People's perception of a program is not what that reality is," Dooley says. "We are in a time in our program when we're very young. I don't want to use that term, ‘rebuilding.' We have some very talented, fresh players, and they are committed to bringing back what we think of as Tennessee football."

—Cari Wade Gervin, "OPPORTUNITYISNOWHERE," Sept. 1, 2011

Eddie Young

Eddie Young works out of a basement, in an office not much larger than a broom closet, usually talking across his desk to one person at a time.

Sometimes the composed, athletically-built, graying 51-year-old steps out into the cinder block main room, with its weak lighting, a couple of posters dotting the walls, a pass-through window and a vintage 1950s church kitchen at one end.

It's shabby all right, and an unlikely base from which Young has become a de facto opinion leader in three years' time, the most unimposing public figure you're likely to meet. His claim to fame is a quirky mixture of projects that address Knoxville's homeless and "radically underprivileged" population in Fort Sanders, from a 5K running group that sponsors its disadvantaged members to a Food in the Fort project that helps them eat healthier, to a recent mayoral candidate debate held in the top part of the same building, and the "voice of social change" Amplifier newspaper produced mostly by the disadvantaged and some University of Tennessee students, and sold by homeless and formerly homeless vendors.

But a far more challenging notion lies beneath all of his efforts. Young is also a pastor, the executive director of Redeeming Hope Ministries, part of the Redeemer Church on the corner of Highland and 17th in the Fort—and while he won't pass up a chance to minister to those who ask him for it, the means and the ends of his projects are one and the same, and have nothing to do with salvation.

"It's a lofty goal, but it's simply to try to bring wholeness and wellness to their lives," he explains of his earthly mission. "Now, if you're asking me if these things are going to afford me a ticket to the afterlife, that's—that's not the motivation."

—Rose Kennedy, "Among Friends," Oct. 6, 2011

Gloria Johnson

Gloria Johnson is used to going a little against the grain.

Growing up as the daughter of an FBI agent, she remembers some harrowing times. "There was crazy stuff in Mississippi," Johnson says. "We were in Mississippi in the late '60s, and we had to move out of our house because the KKK threatened to kill us. They blew up a Jewish synagogue near our house. Dad just left our house and got his buddy and they went and caught two of the guys in their driveway because they knew who they were. The rest of them threatened to kill our whole family. So we moved out for a while."

Johnson tells the story with a laugh and a shake of her head, the same way she tells stories about her challenging work as a teacher at Knox County's Richard Yoakley School for emotionally and behaviorally troubled students. She is a tall woman, 6 foot 3 with long blond hair and broad shoulders, and she does not seem to scare easily.

That may help explain why she decided, at the last minute, to leap into the special election for the 6th District state Senate seat, against a field that included a member of one of Knoxville's most powerful political families. "You have to answer that question," Johnson says. "‘How are you gonna run against a Duncan?' Same way I would run against anything. I'm going to work really hard. No, it doesn't bother me at all."

—Jesse Fox Mayshark, "Tall Order," Oct. 27, 2011

Jim Dykes

At the Friends of Literacy awards banquet at the Crowne Plaza hotel was a sight even the event's contingent of veteran newspapermen had never witnessed: The unusual-looking guy in front was wearing an elegant dark suit and a bright red tie, topped with a red handkerchief. This was the same guy who, protesting a newspaper office's dress code, once showed up at work in a tie and no shirt.

Jim Dykes was, 20-plus years ago, the most read, most quoted, most feared newspaper columnist in East Tennessee. His column was called "Without a Paddle," a name perfect for a Dykes effort in part because of the implied obscenity. Dykes called things like he saw them, ridiculed many, and bowed to no man.

His famous eyebrows still assert themselves like poisonous caterpillars, but he is no longer the formidably burly galoot of a man he was at, say, 70 or 75, the man rumored to have fought a bear to the death, for the claws. Cancer has sapped him, reduced him by almost half; now, he could pass for a standard-sized man. He had trouble rising at the banquet, but his son, David, helped him to the front, where he accepted the night's biggest award, and spoke from a chair to the large and formal hall, to a group that included educators, students, football legend Johnny Majors, judges, nationally known novelists, some in tuxedos. He spoke only a few words in his trademark growl. "It touches me," he said. "It really does. And I'm not easily touched, as you bastards know."

He was there to receive the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. It's been a lifetime like no other. When he talks about it, you wonder how much to believe. Dykes is a proud but discriminating liar. But put it through the filter, and you can easily believe that he has been, in his 78 years, a miner, a logger, a sailor, a security guard, an electrical tower jockey. He's been a telephone man, a professional stage actor, a Vol linebacker, and very briefly, a rodeo rider. And for about 26 years, he was a newspaperman.

"I've had at least 35 jobs," he admits. "I've done a lot of damn stuff."

—Jack Neely, "The Newspaperman," Nov. 10, 2011